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Right-Sizing—And Right-Buying: What’s Working At Indies

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In the new book retail environment, bigger, in many cases, is not better. Having the right-sized store for a community and stocking the appropriate inventory, even if that means adding nonbook items, are keys to success today.

“We’re in a position to have another good year,” said Paul Jaffe, cofounder and co-owner of 32-year-old Copperfield’s Books in California’s Bay Area. That’s in part because several years ago Copperfield’s began rethinking the size of its stores in Sonoma and Napa counties. “Four of our six stores have moved or been right-sized,” said Jaffe, who significantly reduced square footage at several locations, like the one in Santa Rosa, which was scaled back from 11,000 sq. 5,600 sq. ft. in late 2011. “We think we’re in a good position… with less rental cost. It’s really about making Copperfield’s self-sustaining,” he noted. Now the microchain is about to expand, while continuing to keep the footprints of its individual stores small, with its first new addition in many years: a 5,500 sq. ft. bookstore and café in San Rafael, in Marin County, set to open in November. The new store will use fixtures that Copperfield’s put in storage when it right-sized its other locations, plus items it bought when the Borders in San Rafael closed in 2011. 

Copperfield’s has also changed its inventory mix. “We’ve seen a steady decline in new book sales. Only 70% of our sales at this point are from new books,” said Jaffe. “Publishers know how important browse-ability is. For us, it’s not just about browsing books, it’s about creating a place where people can buy a range of products.” One product that has done particularly well at all Copperfield’s stores is greeting cards, which comprise 5% of sales for the chain.

Copperfield’s isn’t alone in turning to cards as an add-on to book sales. Booklink in Northampton, Mass., has been selling cards for many years and ranks it as one of its best sidelines. “I have between 18 and 20 different card lines,” said owner Gabriel Moushabeck. “People like to write cards in this town. [Card sales] really support the books.”

At 13-year-old Longfellow Books, the only remaining new bookstore in Portland, Maine, one of the biggest sidelines is the Out of Print T-shirts line. “Good god do we sell those. It’s been like shooting fish in a barrel,” said co-owner Chris Bowe. On the book side, Longfellow customers have been gravitating to local authors like Monica Wood (When We Were the Kennedys), Michael Paterniti (The Telling Room), and Susan Conley (Paris Was the Place).

Local titles and new, as opposed to used, books have been a mainstay for a number of stores. “Five of our top 10 books last year were by local authors,” said Bruce DeLaney, owner of eight-year-old Rediscovered Books in Boise, Idaho, which is up 8% over 2012 from January through August. “Our customers want new books. They’re looking for a guide to whitewater rafting in Idaho or [Todd Shallat’s] Surviving Minidoka, about a Japanese American internment camp in Idaho. They want those things more than they want a $2 Agatha Christie [book].”

At 44-year-old Left Bank Books, which has two stores in St. Louis, Mo., local has also been key. Last year the store did particularly well with the hardcover edition of One Last Strike, by St. Louis Cardinals’ former manager Tony La Russa. This year sales are up slightly overall thanks to a combination of titles that included Sisterland by local author Curtis Sittenfeld. Looking ahead, co-owner Kris Kleindienst said that she’s particularly excited about another book by a local author—Eric Lundgren’s The Facades. She described it as “a thinly veiled send-up of St. Louis.”

Of course, local isn’t the only draw when it comes to books—although it helps. At 39-year-old the Bookshelf in Cincinnati, Ohio, where sales have been flat, co-owner Chris Weber has been buying more signed first editions from publishers. “They tend to do pretty well,” she said. “By and large, signed books move, if the publishers move forward and have them signed by their release dates. Later, they don’t do as well.” This summer Hanya Yanagihara’s People in the Trees sold “like crazy,” but then, too, so has Cincy author Beth Hoffman’s Looking for Me. And at Linden Tree Books in Los Altos, Calif., co-owner Dianne Edmonds has been shifting her buying strategy to include more backlist titles, particularly when the prices are right. “We’ve been taking advantage of all the publishers’ backlist specials,” she said.